|Your more recent novels are very intricate and deal with intertwining plots that make the reader sit up and pay attention – and SEX AND STRAVINSKY is no exception. Do you enjoy a puzzle yourself?|
|It’s true that my novels since Temples of Delight have become more ‘intricate’, but this is not something I’ve ever consciously planned. I never actually plot my stories. I always begin with characters who arise in my mind from somewhere I’m not sure about. I listen to what they’re saying to each other and jot down lots of little vignettes in the belief that at some point the connections and the significance will become clear to me. It’s really more like dreaming than any rational sort of writing. It all comes together at a rather unconscious level and the ‘intricate plot’ connections come as a series of pleasant surprises to me along the way, as if someone ‘out there’ is dropping presents in my lap. I do find it massively exciting when this starts to happen and I get a great surge of creative energy. |
What I do notice along the way is that a certain mood is taking over the story, or that certain repeating images are pointing the way. I’ll find myself thinking, ‘Why does this person always wear green?’ Or ‘Why are these people always eating?’ That sort of thing.
That said, I do quite a lot of fiddling about with the chronology of the story – train timetables and suchlike - and I also sort-of ‘choreograph’ it quite a lot; working out all the exits and entrances; where are the windows? How are they seated round the table? In which hand is he holding the coat? Where is the gate through which she runs off?
|The characters are pretty recognisable. I think we all know a Caroline! Do you consciously collect characters for later use?|
|I can honestly say that I’ve never consciously borrowed any significant character from real life. For the odd walk-on part or scene shifter, sometimes. And what I notice is that these ‘real life’ characters are always much less 3-dimensional than the important characters who come out of the back of my brain. Those, ironically, are the one’s that readers take on board as ‘real’. I believe that this is because the ‘real life’ people are those you can’t help always seeing from the outside, whereas those that arise from within; from what Rudyard Kipling calls ‘the other side of my head’, are perhaps in some mysterious way all emanations of oneself? Perhaps from a compulsion to try oneself out in different roles; different gender, age, social class, belief systems, etc? I always act out my characters in order to ‘become’ them. I stride about the room, talking aloud in different voices, crying into the mirror, etc. I’ll say to myself, ‘You are an abandoned two-year-old boy.’ ‘You are a stroppy adolescent who loathes her mother.’ It’s quite a lot like being an actor. You don’t have to have met Hamlet to walk around in his shoes and get inside his head. |
Sometimes I make use of odd bizarre snatches of conversation I’ve maybe heard at a bus stop, though, sadly, there usually isn’t a suitable place for them in the book; only for the made-up dialogue.
|Will any of the characters from SEX AND STRAVINSKY be appearing again in the future? I was thinking of the younger people like Cat and Zoe. I’m sure readers would love to know what becomes of them.|
|It was only with Juggling, my fourth book, that I introduced some characters from the previous book – and I was well into the book before I decided to do so. I was writing about two little sisters and I suddenly realised they had to be Alice Pilling’s daughters; Alice from Temples of Delight. I realised that Alice was still worrying me, and that I had to discover what was wrong with her. Then, having indulged myself in this way, I did it again in The Travelling Hornplayer, so I think of that trio of books as a sort of trilogy. In general, it is quite hard to make characters leave your mind after you’ve finished a book. Zoe, from Sex and Stravinsky, is one of those. It seemed to me inevitable that she would be the one to suffer the fall-out from the adults following their hearts, though it still pains me, and I find myself wondering, ‘Is she young enough to have her life turn around, or has Caroline somehow crippled her forever?’ (It struck me only after I’d finished the book, that it’s chock-full of terrible mothers; try-too-hard mothers, catatonic mothers, malevolent mothers, emotionally muted mothers…!) I don’t think she’s going to appear in what I’m working on right now, but – who knows – she may return.|
|You visit South Africa again in this novel. Is it important to you to go home?|
|I left S. Africa when I was 21 and I’m now 71, so I’ve lived in England for 50 years. The apartheid state was so horrible when I left, and I was so young, I think I simply re-made myself as an English person. It was only after the regime changed, in 1994, that I found myself thinking about the country more and more (and visiting more and more). Then, once I’d turned sixty and my parents died and that world I grew up in was gone, I felt impelled to write about it, so I wrote Frankie and Stankie, which is quite unlike all my other, ‘made up’, books. It’s completely autobiographical; a rather kaleidoscopic memoir of real-life true stories and real-life people – friends’ stories, family stories, neighbours’ stories, school teachers’ stories – but set against a sort of black and white newsreel background of intensifying racist lunacy. I suppose I hadn’t quite shaken off the country when I wrote Sex and Stravinsky, and it seemed to me, also, that it’s in New World countries where you are more likely to find that very dramatic and swift mobility, either upwards or downwards – eg the child of an illiterate backyard servant becoming an elegant Milanese intellectual in Prada shoes who writes about Dario Fo, or the child of a catatonic trafficked woman ending up teaching at Bristol University.) |
I feel more English than anything else, though everywhere I’m a little bit ‘inside-outside’ (mother from Berlin, via the Friesian Islands, father from the Netherlands, via the 16th century sephardic Spanish exodus, so I’m quite mixed up anyway), but I do love being in South Africa these days, when I’m not in my canalside house in North Oxford with my beloved shaggy grey lurcher. Nobody’s heard of lurchers in South Africa..
|Who would you invite to you fantasy bookgroup?|
|I think I'd invite William Hazlitt, James Wood, PHilip Hensher and Adam Mars Jones, because I completely respect their literary judgements. I'd have George Eliot, not only for her fictional talent, but for her constant interest in socio-economic, cultural and anthropological phenomena, as is evident from a reading of any one of her books. I'd have Elaine Dundy and Iris Murdoch, for writing the two books that delighted my teenage years - namely The Dud Avocado and Under the Net - and I'd ask along Jeanette Winterson and Elspeth Barker, for whose wonderful first novel, O Caledonia, I failed, as a Whitbread judge, to swing the First Novel Prize. Maggie O'Farrell might be good fun to have along, and Mister Shakespeare, of course. I think I'd also like James Fenton and maybe Edmund White.|
Gosh, what a fantastic discussion we could have!